Monday, November 8, 2010

Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities – plus Aptitude

Met a man in New York one day. He was carrying a violin case and he asked me how to get to Carnegie Hall. So I told him practice, practice, practice.


I have spent a large part of my life and career as a teacher. I usually tease people that the only reason I’ve done other work, is to get job experience that I can then use in teaching. I have missed teaching these last twelve years in printer development, but I still get to teach a few classes so it is all good. At a very early age I loved to explain things and there are several stories I can tell about growing up and teaching, but I’ll save those for another time.

My formal teaching started in the Navy while I was attending the Navy Electronics “A” School; I volunteered for an assignment teaching mandatory night study classes four times a week. So I would sit in class during the day learning electronics and taking a ton of notes, and then turn around and teach the same material that evening. One positive benefit from that experience is that I graduated first in my class from “A” School.

After getting out of the Navy I worked in electronics and aerospace in Boulder, Colorado. After a few years I took a job at the Electronics Technical Institute, a private school in Denver, teaching FCC License Preparation, Basic Electronics, and Advanced Electronic Communications. I spent almost five years in that job. I then went to work for Metropolitan State College of Denver teaching electronics engineering. These were the jobs I had when I was first married, living in Longmont, and commuting to Denver.

I later went to work for IBM and started out performing final testing on Series III Copiers. From there I moved to Disk Drive Manufacturing as a test engineer. It was during this time that the IBM PC was announced. I had experience with the PC since I worked on some of its components during development, and I had owned several personal computers prior to IBM releasing its entry into the market. I started to teach evening classes to IBMers on using the PC. I taught Lotus 1-2-3 and Easywriter and simple programming to various people at IBM Boulder. Those were very popular classes and I was teaching a lot. I was also assigned one day a week to work with a local middle school teaching their talented and gifted class and holding seminars for the teachers explain how to use the Apple II and IBM PC for teaching and administration.

As my reputation spread, I was recruited to IBM Technical Education where I spent the next fifteen years teaching and developing classes on programming, software engineering, and testing. It was work I loved and excelled at and I benefited greatly from the exposure and knowledge I developed during those days of travel and teaching. I was promoted quickly and soon found myself a Senior Instructor and Course Designer assigned to the IBM elite Software Engineering School in Thornwood, New York.

Instructional Design

It was during this time with Technical Education that IBM sent me to several courses at Vanderbilt University and Harvard on Instructional Design and Education. I had attended classes at Colorado State University earlier in my career and had learned a lot about teaching, but these classes focused on course development, instructional design, and the three initials: “KSA.” That is Knowledge, Skill, and Ability. Later I had the pleasure of working with the IBM Global Services Institute as a senior instructor and I developed a lot of the early IBM courseware on the internet. I worked directly with various university faculty and at one point planned to obtain a Ph.D. in Instructional Design. Alas my travel schedule prevented that.

Since I had a Master’s Degree in math, and was an expert at statistical analysis based on my experience in Disk Drive Manufacturing and Test, I took on several projects where our IBM Programmer Training curriculum was “validated.” IBM (and the Federal Government) considered IBM Programmer Training as a “job action.” Employees selected to be retrained as programmers would complete their training and get promotions and pay raises. Therefore it was essential that the training be validated and shown to be essential and not culturally biased.

The retraining program I helped to design and implement was highly successful with over 88% of the students who entered the program completing it successfully and becoming programmers. But how could we certify that the 10% or so that didn’t make it were removed for a valid reason? I worked with an IBM education expert, Dr. Patricia Douglas, developing the terminal objectives of the courses, then creating the enabling objectives of the material and tying those to the terminal objectives.

At the start of the development of the programmer retraining curriculum, we had performed detailed job analysis documenting the tasks performed by programmers and breaking those tasks down into knowledge, skill, and ability. We then did user surveys and statistical analysis to tie the KSAs to the terminal objectives.

This was a large project and at one time there were over 20 staff working on it including outside consultants. All together we worked on the project for over a year, and received considerable acclaim from the education community on the thoroughness of our process when we later published the non confidential part of our results. This work is still considered a standard for course design and validation to this day.

During the process and my self education and study, I became fascinated with this taxonomy and inventory of what it means for an individual to be able to perform tasks in work and life. I started to apply these attributes to my own education and reading and it helped me organize my studies.

I was later asked to consult with the University Americade in Puerto Rico where I spent many wonderful Caribbean weeks assisting the faculty design and implement highly successful training programs. Again task analysis and KSA defintions were fundamental to the work.


So let’s talk about Instructional Design. Let me explain and define. Knowledge is facts. To quote a government document, “Knowledge statements refer to an organized body of information usually of a factual or procedural nature which, if applied, makes adequate performance on the job possible.” A body of information applied directly to the performance of a function.

I recall teaching a class on solid state physics. That’s what makes transistors and other semiconductors work. As part of the student’s school supplies, they had a dictionary of electronics. I gave them all a fifty word vocabulary list and asked them to look up the words in the dictionary and write out the definitions. After a lot of groans, the students complied, and I collected the work the next day and graded it. (Everyone got an A.) I didn’t even care if they copied off another student. Key was they now knew the vocabulary (facts) that I would use in the next day’s lecture as I described solid state physics and how a semiconductor diode functioned. I later got praise from several students who typically struggled with the learning telling me they really got a lot out of the lecture and had not found it that easy to learn before.

Later I collected books with titles such as “Project Management Body of Knowledge” or PMBOK and the “Software Engineering Body of Knowledge” or SWEBOK. I would read those books like some people read dictionaries. I am fascinated by encyclopedic volumes of knowledge in particular fields of study.


Skill is something that improves with practice. Again, from a government document, “Skill statements refer to the proficient manual, verbal or mental manipulation of data or things. Skills can be readily measured by a performance test where quantity and quality of performance are tested, usually within an established time limit. Examples of proficient manipulation of things are skill in typing or skill in operating a vehicle. Examples of proficient manipulation of data are skill in computation using decimals; skill in editing for transposed numbers, etc.”

You musicians out there know the importance of practice — endless scales and hours with “Hannon.” The same is true of skills such as welding, soldering, and painting — practice makes perfect. It is not just about muscle memory and “wax on, wax off” that is the key to skill development. I spent many a long hour in the library pouring out solutions to math and physics problems until I could almost instantly shape a solution into its component parts and quickly perform the intermediate calculations.


Ability is about the overall capability to perform the task or function. “Ability statements refer to the power to perform an observable activity at the present time. This means that abilities have been evidenced through activities or behaviors that are similar to those required on the job, e.g., ability to plan and organize work. Abilities are different from aptitudes. Aptitudes are only the potential for performing the activity.” And now we hear it: Aptitude. Aptitude is not about education. Aptitude is a talent or gift innate in the individual.

Before we go on to discuss aptitude, just a reminder that, in many ways, ability is a combination of all the student attributes from knowledge to skill and certainly aptitude. In industry, it is the ability that matters. Some of the smartest people I know are not worth beans in industry because they are not able to really do anything. A story I can tell is about a smart person I met in the Navy, but they put him in the tool crib passing out parts because he just had no common sense. At one point he took all the shop’s screwdrivers and sharpened them on a grinder. Why he thought screwdrivers have to be sharp is beyond me. But he was brilliant! Maybe he knew something the rest of us didn’t know?


So now we’re down to it. The part you cannot learn. The part that you come equipped with. The “-ility” you are born with. Your talents or gifts.

The use of the word “gift” has a biblical and spiritual connotation. The Apostle Paul spoke of our spiritual gifts given us to be used in the Lord’s service. We don’t all have the same gifts, and that is as intended. Paul used the human body as an example and different functions of the eyes, the ears, and the legs. Yet it is in the synergistic function of all these different gifts that the wonderful whole is realized. Some of us have the gift of music, some the gift of teaching, and some the gift of hands and building. All are needed.

So it is essential that people are not “beat over the head” about their lack of a particular aptitude. Remember the stage mother driving her child to success where the child has no business in the theater. That never turns out well, does it? Each should develop his or her abilities the best they can. It takes hard work, and there are limitations, and aptitudes vary, but we must all bloom where we are planted.

Since you can’t really train people to have aptitude, in our programmer retraining curriculum we used tests such as IBM Information Processing Aptitude Test (IPAT). It had previously been validated, and we used that process and information as the basis of our overall validation of the programmer curriculum. (The IPAT is also well known in educational circles as a standard for aptitude testing.)

The Navy had a whole battery of aptitude tests including those that measured aptitude for math and communications (I scored very high on those) as well as aptitude for sonar operation. That test was a series of tones in an earphone and you would identify which tone was highest, the first, second, or third. That was a lot tougher test than it sounds like (oh — humor), and I didn’t do so well. Since I have a tin ear, that is no surprise. (Nor is it a surprise from those who have heard me play the guitar!) Oh well, I still love music, even if I’ll never excel at it.

One aptitude I seem to have, much to my benefit, is the aptitude for study and understanding. I can’t explain how lessons come so easy to me. Is it my memory? Is it my clear thinking? Is it my thought processes? I don’t know. I just know I’ve always excelled in school. I have an innate ability to take tests well. First, I don’t stress. But more important I don’t “argue” with the teacher or test writer. I quickly determine just what it is that he or she expects as the answer, and give it.

I graduated from engineering school summa cum laude and was a three times winner of the Colorado Scholars Award. But it was much more a measure of my natural ability and aptitudes than a statement of how hard I studied. After all, I was working and raising a family while going to school, and I didn’t spend that much time with the books. Granted I got a degree in something I was already trained and experienced in, electronics. So I was able to focus on the details in class, since I already knew the basics. That helped. But more important, I just seemed to have a natural talent for this stuff, and I benefited greatly from that.

Ever since learning about Instructional Design, I’ve keenly aware of how KSAs show themselves in individual performance, as well as in my own learning and living. Plus a healthy respect for aptitudes (and attitudes too).


Let me give you an example of aptitude or gifts from two people I know. The first is a young man, a talented musician with a degree in music. (As an aside, I have found musical talent to be typical in those with great math ability as well as I have found that musicians make good programmers. Something about patterns and synthesis!) He is also an avid photographer and videographer and has a business doing this kind of work.

After reviewing some samples of his work, I asked him if he was aware of the “rule of thirds.” Now the rule of thirds is an example of “Knowledge.” It is a fact that you would learn in photography classes, and has to do with framing a picture or scene and where you place people and objects. Although novice photographers will often place a head in the middle of the frame, it is much more esthetically pleasing to place the head one-third of the way across the frame. This can be combined with implied actions to create a balanced photo.

He responded that he had not heard of this rule, but that he had watched a lot of TV and seen photos, and his framing just matched his experience. I was immediately reminded of this quote from Edward Weston: “Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.” His point is that the natural ability takes charge — not knowledge or skill.

You can find many books (and internet sites) that will teach the rules of composition, but that will not make a person a skilled photographic artist without the innate ability. It won’t hurt, and I recommend study of the body of knowledge for anyone who is pursuing an intellectual career, but ability is really key to high levels of success.

Let me contrast this young man with another person I know. She has been taking pictures starting at a young age. She’s taken many classes on photography in high school and college, read books, discussed picture taking on blogs, and yet — since she lacks innate ability or the photographic “gift” — her photos are all rather pedestrian. Oh she tries to copy the things she has learned, taking pictures of walls and light fixtures, but it just isn’t there. One of her problems is framing. Her pictures usually put the object of interest in the exact center of the photo. That's called "bulls eye" framing. It is not very interesting nor artistic. She just doesn't have the natural ability to realize that. It is obvious she has no "gift" for photography. Her pictures are rather boring ... she usually tries to spruce them up with computer apps that add frames or strange coloration. Her work is rather pedestrian.

Now don’t get me wrong, she is an accomplished photographer and can take nice snapshots for the photo album; she can focus and set the exposure correctly; she has the knowledge; but her work just doesn’t inspire like the young man’s work I spoke of. In fact, if you look at her pictures, the heads are usually right in the middle of the frame! Now that does not subtract from the joy this lady has in photography, but if I was a career counselor, I would suggest another line of work. I think it is wonderful that she gets so much enjoyment from her photography, and I would never tell her to quit shooting. Excellence, on the other hand, requires gifts.


So that is what I dealt with in instructional design. There are many variables including different learning styles and a student’s work ethic that are all important in education. But the old saying about silk purses and sow’s ears applies. I believe in effective education and the need for quality teachers and good curriculi, but the focus must be on the learner as well. Attitude and aptitude have a big of an impact on overall learning as measured by KSAs.

Still it is the teacher’s goal to develop the greatest KSA in all of his or her students that they are capable of. I always tried to make learning fun, only taught meaningful (and validated) objectives, and focused on each student performing to the best of his or her ability. I was always prouder of the student who struggled, but worked hard and accomplished a lot than the “bright” student who didn’t really try and did not accomplish anywhere near what their ability would allow.

And let me tell you, I had a lot of students in that latter category. They were coasting through life, at least my class, and they made me very sad. To this day, my most meaningful memories of teaching are those students, less gifted, but so full of can-do spirit and attitude that they stood out in my memory. God bless them.

So there you have it. Some have the gift. The rest of us must work hard, and still possibly not accomplish excellence. I recommend pursuit of excellence, but I also teach and preach joy in living, joy in learning. Don’t be afraid to try. In fact, you just may have the gift.

The next time you take a class or an online self study or just try to learn from a book, think about the knowledge, the facts you are learning. Organize the facts, study the facts, memorize the facts — it is all good. Think about the skills — do the homework people, that is how the skills are learned.

Use the learning, do something, construct something, create something. That is the ability. (A little trick I do when I'm trying to learn something or planning on attending a class: I try out the task or tool and get a little practice first. Then the class will make a lot more sense. I wrote programs in C++ before I took my first C++ class. Same with Java. I play with the topic first before I begin serious study. That yields context and helps for the relationships with what you already know and ties the new learning into your conscience.)

But the aptitude — well that is given to us at birth. You can polish that aptitude and practice and learn, but without the gift, it can be very frustrating. Work through that frustration. If it is something you love, then accomplishment is reward enough in itself. We may not all get to play at Carnegie Hall, but we can still drag the bow across the strings and make beautiful music for ourselves. Now, where did I put that guitar I want (need) to practice?


  1. Knowledge, skills and ability to do the things are the keys of sure shot success in any fiels and it has been described in the post very well and If you are mising a single factor then it will be harder to get success.

  2. knowledge skills and abilities – these are the three main things employers look for when they read resumes from job applicants. In addition to your resume quite often you have to write a statement about your knowledge, skills and abilities and if you need help then you can contact us as we are expert in this field.
    knowledge skills abilities